The beatification of Pope John Paul II, now scheduled for May 1, promises to bring immense crowds to Rome—perhaps rivaling the numbers that descended on the Eternal City for the late Pope’s funeral in April 2005.
The official announcement of plans for the beatification, released by the Vatican on January 14, prompted some public criticism. The cause of the Polish Pontiff has moved forward at a speed quite unlike the usual sedate pace of such inquiries. For critics of the late Pope—and especially for those who question his handling of a sex-abuse scandal that is still playing itself out across Europe—things seem to be moving with unseemly haste. But officials of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (CCS) insisted that the process has been as meticulous as in any other case.
Rumors precede announcement
Early in January, rumors began to swirl around Rome that the CCS was preparing for a crucial vote on the cause for John Paul II. Journalist Andrea Tornielli of Il Giornale, who has been consistently accurate in predicting developments at the Vatican during recent years, reported that a medical team appointed by the CCS had submitted a positive report on a miracle attributed to the late Pope’s intercession.
The reported miracle—the sudden healing of a French nun, Sister Marie Simon- Pierre, from Parkinson’s disease, the same malady that had troubled Pope John Paul II—had already been thoroughly examined and approved by a panel of theologians, Tornielli noted. Thus the CCS had all the information necessary for a final vote to approve the miracle. And since Pope Benedict had already approved a decree testifying to the “heroic virtue” of his predecessor, the approval of a miracle would fulfill the only remaining condition for his beatification.
Vatican-watchers took an intense interest, therefore, in the January 11 meeting of the CCS. The Congregation does not issue public reports on its meetings, and the decrees approved by its members do not take effect until they are authorized by the Pope. So after the CCS meeting, a few days of official silence ensued. Then alert journalists noticed that workers in St. Peter’s Basilica had already begun preparations for transferring the body of John Paul II, presumably in preparation for his beatification. The remains of the late Pontiff, currently buried in the crypt of the basilica, will be moved to the main floor when he is beatified. His tomb will be in the chapel of St. Sebastian, near the main door.
There was no surprise, then, when January 14 brought the formal announcement from the Vatican. The CCS had released a decree, formally approved by Benedict XVI, confirming the authenticity of the miracle. Along with that announcement, the Vatican also announced that the date for the beatification ceremony had been set: May 1.
A fast track
The beatification will take place just a bit more than six years after the death of John Paul II. Ordinarily the Vatican imposes a five-year waiting period after death before even opening the investigation that can lead to beatification. But Pope Benedict XVI waived that requirement for his predecessor.
During the funeral of John Paul II in April 2005, thousands of people in the congregation had joined in the chant, “Santo subito!” calling for quick action to raise the beloved Pontiff to the altars. Pope Benedict satisfied that popular request— at least insofar as he authorized a “fast-track” handling of the case.
Nevertheless, Cardinal Angelo Amato, the prefect of the CCS, insisted that the process leading up to the beatification had been every bit as rigorous in the case of John Paul II as in any other. In a conversation with Vatican Radio, Cardinal Amato conceded that this cause had been hastened by Pope Benedict’s decision to waive the usual waiting period, and by the subsequent decision to give this investigation precedence over some other pending cases on the Congregation’s docket. “There were, however, no corners cut with regard to the rigor and accuracy of procedure,” the cardinal said. He explained:
The case was treated like any other, following all the steps prescribed by the law of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. On the contrary, if I may speak further to one of my first observations: precisely in order to honor the dignity and the memory of this great Pope, to avoid any doubt and overcome any difficulties, the case was subjected to particularly careful scrutiny.
The Congregation did give top priority to the cause of John Paul II, but the scrutiny of his life and works was not curtailed. The investigation acquired and then pored over literally tens of thousands of pages of testimony about the life of the late Pontiff. The reported miracle was carefully vetted by both theologians and doctors. Pope John Paul II lived in the limelight, more than perhaps any other figure in history; his actions and statements were well known to the public—and in most cases, recorded for posterity— even before the investigation began. Critics and skeptics had plenty of time to make their case, and plenty of evidence with which to make it. They did not convince the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Nor did they convince the general public. Those cries of “Santo subito!” heard at the late Pope’s funeral still represented the general consensus.
The formal decree issued by the Vatican observed that: “John Paul II’s pontificate was an eloquent and clear sign, not only for Catholics, but also for world public opinion, for people of all color and creed.” The decree noted the chants of “Santo subito,” and concluded: “The faithful have felt, have experienced that he is ‘God’s man.’”
The “fast-track” status of the case also influenced the scheduling of the beatification ceremony. Ordinarily the Vatican allows some time to elapse between the certification of a miracle, which clears the way for beatification, and the announcement of a date for the beatification ceremony. In this case the two announcements were made simultaneously, reflecting the determination of Vatican officials to leave adequate time for preparations for the event.
Emphases and omissions
The Vatican decree announcing the beatification drew special attention to several facets of the life of John Paul II. Some involved his personal interior life: his intense but simple prayer, his deep Marian devotion. Others included his contributions to the life of the Church: his influence during the Second Vatican Council, his involvement with youth and especially with World Youth Day, and his extraordinary work for the Jubilee Year 2000.
Oddly, the Vatican decree did not mention the pivotal role that John Paul II played in the rise of the Solidarity movement and the eventual collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Yet the decree did mention the “peace offensive” that the Pontiff undertook in 2002 in a desperate and ultimately fruitless effort to stave off the war in Iraq.
The decree also made special note of John Paul II’s decision to establish a new feast on the Church’s liturgical calendar: the feast of Divine Mercy, a devotion initiated by the Polish nun he canonized in 2000, St. Faustina Kowalska. This year the feast of Divine Mercy will fall on May 1, making it a suitable occasion for the late Pope’s beatification.
Apart from concerns about the quick pace of the late Pope’s cause—which Cardinal Amato’s assurances failed to dispel completely—the beatification plans also drew criticism from many public commentators, who still raise serious questions about the papacy of John Paul II. The leaders of groups representing sex-abuse victims— whose opinions the media now seek on any subject involving the Catholic Church—issued reminders that the scandal had exploded under the late Pope’s watch. For them, the beatification will doubtless be yet another occasion to articulate their argument that the Holy See should be held responsible for the actions of predatory priests all around the world.
Other critics of John Paul’s pontificate had their own complaints to raise, from a wide range of different perspectives. Was John Paul II right to kiss the Qu’ran? To institute the World Youth Day celebrations? To gather different religious leaders at Assisi? Was he wrong to support Father Maciel? There were (and are) legitimate questions, not likely to be resolved before the beatification ceremony.
But even if John Paul II was open to criticism for some of his actions (or in-actions), the debate over his administration of the papacy need not cloud the celebration of May 1. Beatification is not a claim that an individual was perfect; it is, rather, the Church’s pronouncement that in spite of his human weaknesses, the individual made an extraordinary, loving, heroic response to God’s call. It is easy to make that judgment of John Paul II, even in the face of harsh criticism.
More to the point, that decision has been made by the authority of the Church. Still more important, it has been ratified by a miracle. The process of beatification requires that the Church thoroughly investigate the life of the candidate, find evidence of heroic virtue, and then wait for a sign from God to confirm that judgment. In the case of John Paul II we now have a sign: a miracle cure, certified by independent experts as inexplicable by all human means. Unless one is prepared to argue that Vatican officials deliberately distorted the evidence or exerted undue influence on the investigating panels—an argument that would require a considerable degree of devotion to conspiracy theory—the miracle is evidence that the almighty God approved the beatification of John Paul II.
Those who do not believe in miracles, of course, will not find this argument convincing. But for those who disbelieve in miracles, the beatification of John Paul II will not be the first source of disagreement with the Catholic Church.
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